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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Friday, January 22, 2016

Is another Scotland still possible?

Alasdair Morgan SNP MP 1997-2001, George Thompson SNP MP 1974-1979, Richard Arkless SNP MP 2015-

The quote below is from Derek Bateman’s blog, describing ‘the Nationalists who turn out massively to vote SNP, work for the party, pay for the party and will back independence to their death…’.

It was the  mention of Kirkcudbright in the quote which caught my eye and struck a chord. As a 15 year old schoolboy I helped with SNP candidate George Thompson’s 1974 election campaign there. George became Galloway’s first SNP MP in October 1974. He was my French teacher at Kirkcudbright Academy and a friend of my SNP supporting parents.

…the people I’m talking about are rarely in the news, except maybe when their town gets flooded or there’s a lottery winner nearby. They have little presence in mainstream news and neither do they figure in alternative media. They don’t have blogs, unless it’s part of a community initiative. Mostly they live away from the metropolitan centres and inhabit small-scale urban and rural Scotland. In Portsoy and Fraserburgh. In Portlethen and Johnshaven. In Arbroath and Carnoustie. They’re in the towns that litter the map and whose names we mostly see on motorway signs.
I encountered them as a BBC reporter in the days when journalists actually went somewhere instead of googling. I met Tories in Kirkcudbright, Liberals in Inverurie, Nationalists in Montrose and Shetland Movement men in Lerwick. Away from the Central Belt hothouse where the media fulcrum is, attitudes and outlook are often very different from the obsessions of the chattering classes and the bletherin’ bawbags. This is where we still find the loyal bedrock of SNP support and they aren’t spending time planning a Workers’ Co-op after independence. I doubt if they’re thinking much beyond a country initially run by the people they already trust to do the job – the SNP.  
    From    http://derekbateman.co.uk/2016/01/19/breaking-news/

The ‘small scale urban and rural Scotland’ Derek describes as home to the bedrock of SNP  support is where I grew up and where I still live. Although I didn’t join the SNP in 1974, I did in 1997 when Alasdair Morgan became Galloway’s second SNP MP. For a few years I was Convenor of the SNP’s Castle Douglas Branch.  Although I haven’t been a party member for several years, I have happily voted SNP and worked with old friends who are SNP members during the referendum campaign.

In early 2013 I began thinking about the likely outcome of the independence referendum in Dumfries and Galloway. As I knew only too well, the Conservative and Unionist party has been strongly rooted in the region since overtaking the Liberal party in the 1930s.

In Dumfriesshire, Labour historically acted as the main opposition to the Conservatives (represented by the National Liberals until 1963) and in Galloway the SNP played that role from 1970 onwards. But while the SNP did manage to win in October 1974 (losing again in 1979), in Dumfriesshire the Conservatives held the seat until 1997.  Since 2005, Conservative David Mundell has held the ‘new’ seat of Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale while Russell Brown for Labour held the other new seat of Dumfries and Galloway from 2005 until 2015.

In the 1979 devolution referendum, 59.7 % of  the voters in Dumfries and Galloway voted no. In 1997, 60.7% voted yes for a Scottish parliament but 51.2% voted against the parliament having tax raising powers.

I took the 2011 Scottish parliament constituency elections in the region as a rough guide to the likely outcome of the 2014 referendum in Dumfries and Galloway. In 2011, Conservatives and Labour both got around 21 000 votes while the SNP got 19 000.

If voting in the referendum followed party political lines, then the out come would be 69% No, 31%  Yes- a worse result than the 1979 devolution referendum… Realistically, assuming Tory voters would be firmly No, the only hope for increasing the Yes vote would be to target Labour voters. The actual result in Dumfries and Galloway in 2014 was 66% No, 34% Yes - only a small shift towards Yes from my original guesstimate.

Of course in 2015, the SNP produced an astounding result nationally. Unfortunately, despite Richard Arkless’ win in  Dumfries and Galloway constituency the combined vote of pro-Union parties (Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dems and Ukip)  was 58% . In Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale the combined pro-Union vote was 60%. Combing the two results gives an equivalent to 59 % No, 41 % Yes.

In other words, although support for the SNP hit an all time high in Dumfries and Galloway in May 2015, support for independence had only risen by 7 % since September 2014.

The next test will be in May 2016. In Galloway, or Galloway and West Dumfries as it now is, Conservative Alex Fergusson who has held the constituency since 2003 is stepping down. The  prospective Conservative candidate is Finlay Carson, who was beaten by Richard Arkless in the Westminster election in 2015. Aileen McLeod is the SNP candidate and has a very good chance of winning. In Dumfriesshire, Elaine Murray has held the seat for Labour since 1999. In 2015, the Labour vote in Dumfries and Galloway dropped by 9968. In Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale it dropped by 5552.  This collapse in the Labour vote suggests that Joan McAlpine will have a very good chance of winning Dumfriesshire for the SNP in 2016.

However, from the perspective of independence, the critical vote in May will be the Labour vote. In Dumfries and Galloway, the  Conservative vote was the core of the No vote in 2014, just as the SNP’s bedrock support in the region was the core of the Yes vote.

To push the Yes vote in a second referendum up towards the 60% mark, roughly 2/3 of one-time/ former Labour voters in the region will have to be persuaded to vote Yes. The strongest indication that this shift is possible and is happening would be if Joan McAlpine manages to double the SNP vote to over 16 000 by gaining 8000 votes from Labour.

There is a problem however. As Derek Bateman explains, the bedrock of SNP support comes from people with a life-long commitment to independence for Scotland. But former Labour voters and former Labour party members do not have this same background. Many, most obviously those who joined the SNP after September 2014, have become supporters of independence. But that commitment has not been tested through long years of struggle in the way that the bedrock of SNP support has been.

Derek’s analysis suggests a related difficulty.

In speaking to those scattered Scots I tried to understand what it was that motivated them – often people don’t know themselves until it is teased out of them. It is, I think, quite simply a sense that they can do things better themselves and have lost trust in the British system. As Britain has become steadily become more unequal, the political class in London less representative – their expenses troughing a low point – and Holyrood more successful, they have seen a better way of meeting their aspirations. Their faith is in the parliament and that has swelled as the SNP has grown into the role of government. Pretty obvious, really.
And I would say they are – very broadly – dismissive of attempts to design too much the architecture for an independent country before we get there. They do need to see a coherent plan before voting Yes which makes sense of currency, the EU and how the split will be managed. But they trust the SNP to construct the framework. That’s why they vote for them. 

For the bedrock of SNP supporters, this trust in the party to manage the transition to independence has been built up over many years. They make no distinction between the SNP and the independence movement.  For many years the Labour party also saw itself as a movement In 1962  Labour leader Harold Wilson said ‘This party is a moral crusade or it is nothing’. As Derek points out, comparing SNP supporters to Labour party supporters-

Such people used to inhabit the Labour Party. They were passionate too. They gave up time. Sometimes they gave up work. They travelled Britain to campaign. They were bound by shared commitment for a cause. They too were loons to their opponents. But like those of us today who retain a sense of purpose, they didn’t care what was said about them. Their devotion to Labour made them impervious. Nobody who ever truly believed in a cause wavered in the face of scorn.

But then the Labour party lost its sense of purpose and its supporters became disillusioned. While the SNP have gained from this, it means that there is difference between older and newer SNP supporters. Any of the newer supporters and members who have come from Labour party background are, from bitter experience, likely to be less trusting than the bedrock of SNP supporters.

In 2002, when I was still a member, the SNP had 16 000 members. This fell to 9500 in 2003 but then began to rise again and reached 25 000 in 2013. By 2015 there were 110 000 SNP members.

Looking at support for independence between 1979 and 2012, in March 1979 only 14% of Scots supported a ‘completely independent’ Scottish parliament. The highest support for independence found was 47% in April 1998.  Of the 61 polls carried out between 1986 and 2012, 51 showed support in the range 30 to 39%. Since 2014, 7 out of 27 polls have shown Yes ahead of No. The highest [August 2015] gave Yes 53%, No 43% and 3 % undecided. However even this result is some way short of the 60% Yes support needed to be reasonably confident of a Yes win in a second referendum.

What Derek Bateman’s analysis of the independence movement’s bedrock supporters shows is that they place an absolute value on independence. But during the long independence referendum campaign, support for a Yes vote grew among people who saw independence as a relative good. For example, people like those Derek jokingly suggested were busy planning a Worker’s Co-op after independence- possibly a reference to the Radical Independence Campaign.

This difference between absolute and relative support for independence existed during the independence referendum campaign but was masked by the shared focus on 18 September 2014. The shared interest in ensuring an SNP win in the 2015 UK election continued the sense of unity. But as we head towards the 2016 Scottish election, the fault line is becoming more obvious.

For people who place an absolute value on independence, the SNP remains the only game in town. For those who are ‘relativists’, the situation is more complicated and so view the SNP as a political party rather than an independence movement in itself. Yes the SNP now has a membership of 110 000, but to securely win another independence referendum, about 2 100 000 voters will have to be persuaded to say Yes.

Is it realistic to expect all of these voters to have an absolute commitment to independence? No, it is not. Thinking about the fluctuations in support for independence since 1979, in addition to the bedrock of absolute support for independence there must also be an element of provisional support as well.

What would be useful to know is the degree of commitment to independence within the opinion poll results and the 2014 referendum vote. Without that knowledge it is not possible to know if the absolutist or relativist independence ‘message’ is more effective at winning support.

For example when Derek Bateman says ‘The imperative is to win first, not get lost in debating the aftermath.’ that is a message which resonates with the absolutists. Derek then goes on to say-

And the bedrock, if I read it right, is also convinced of a point perhaps wilfully missed by all the media. It is that the very accomplishment of independence will provide an impetus to change. The fact of becoming a new state, of re-writing the relationship with London and the realisation of self-determination will act as an inspiration. The confidence derived from the opportunities of controlling our own country, making new friends and alliances and fine-tuning our tax system to develop the economy, will fuel the new country. At least the theory of fulfilling our true potential will be tested. For them this will be Day One of living in a better country. To the question: What kind of country do you want to live in? their answer is: an independent one.

Until recently I would have agreed with this, but now I am not so sure. Thinking about the implications of independence since 2013, I have been extending my historical research from the local to the national level. Before the Union of 1707, Scotland was a rural and agricultural nation. For the first 60 or so years after the Union, this did not change. But then the impact of the industrial revolution transformed Scotland into a mainly urban and industrial nation.

The appalling conditions in urban and industrial Scotland gave rise to the Labour party and its ‘moral crusade’ but its failure during the Thatcher years and afterwards helped the SNP’s rise to power in Scotland. See https://radicalindydg.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/the-industrial-clearances-and-the-death-of-labour/

Rural Scotland was also transformed by first the Lowland and then the Highland Clearances. These were driven by the change from traditional farming and land use to farming and land use as part of a competitive capitalist economy. However, the first signs of this change occurred in Galloway before the Union of 1707.

What happened  was that after the English parliament banned the import of Irish cattle in 1667, landowners in Galloway began exporting cattle to England. Most of the cattle were destined for London which was growing rapidly.

In England, the growth of London encouraged the development of ’capitalist’ farming, that is farms which specialised in producing food for sale in London, for ‘the market’. Before then most farming had been based on local or regional self-sufficiency.

Until the cattle trade was developed, farming in Galloway had also been based on subsistence/ self- sufficiency. But once cattle could be ’bought and sold for English gold’ this changed. By the 1690s, up to 10 000 cattle per year were being exported to England from Galloway.

What this suggests is that even if there had not been a political union in 1707, Scotland’s economic independence would have been affected by developments in England. In particular, as England became the world’s first capitalist and industrial nation, this would have put increasing pressure on Scotland to follow the same path.

It is a complicated story, but I have sketched the outline here

And finally- a lesson from history.

As Derek says

Remember we are asking people to do the most radical thing any recent generation has faced – break up the British state. No matter how you oil it, it’s still a massive spanner in the works.

The two elections in 1974 which saw George Thompson and 10 other SNP MPs elected also saw a Labour government elected. The left of the Labour party had prepared a set of radical economic policies for the new government. These included a plan to use revenue from the new North Sea oilfields to regenerate British manufacturing industry. But a combination of resistance from Labour’s right wing and the Treasury blocked the plans.

Richard Seymour has summed up why radical project failed.

It was a utopian programme in the strict sense that no thought had been given to the range of social forces it would be necessary to assemble and mobilise in order that its goals could be achieved, and its accomplishments protected. It was simply assumed that an elected government could bring these changes about, and that once implemented the ruling class would have no alternative but to accept them.    

What this suggests to me is that to achieve independence as ‘the most radical thing’ will require ‘mobilising and assembling a range of social forces’ if the goal is to be achieved and the accomplishment protected. Otherwise independence will remain a utopian project, an enduring dream but not a reality.

During the independence referendum campaign a broad range of ‘social forces’ assembled and mobilised themselves in support of a Yes vote, but outside of the official Yes campaign.

If there is a second independence referendum a similar mobilisation will be needed. Sadly, there does not seem to be any recognition of this in Derek Bateman’s blog post.

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Blogger Dave Coull said...

Very interesting article, Alistair. Ranging through history from 1667 to the development (and decline) of the Labour Party, and the growth, yet limitations, of the SNP (which my own daughter joined on the day after the 2014 referendum). But looking to the future in the last few sentences.

"During the independence referendum campaign a broad range of ‘social forces’ assembled and mobilised themselves in support of a Yes vote, but outside of the official Yes campaign."

And indeed it had to be so, and it had to be "unofficial", because anything "official" could only be what had the stamp of approval of the SNP leadership.

"If there is a second independence referendum a similar mobilisation will be needed."

Which is why, despite the inevitable focus on party politicking during the run-up to the Scottish Parliament elections in just over three months' time, some of us are putting our efforts into non-party-political social campaigns which could have the potential of "mobilising and assembling a range of social forces".

Derek Bateman is not the only one failing to get the point, but there will be a campaign for another independence referendum, there will be another referendum, and there will be a need for "un-official" Yes campaigning in that referendum.

2:24 pm  

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